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Course Report recently caught up with Bloc alumni Ashton Levier to discuss her transition from Front-End to Full-Stack Developer and her new job at Schawel+Coles. Ashton also shares how her Utah Girl Develop It chapter helped her break into the tech community (Ashton eventually received the Bloc/GDI scholarship). As a Bloc bootcamp grad who landed multiple job offers, Ashton has great advice for anyone who feels they don’t fit the tech demographic.

What brought you to Utah from Louisiana?

I graduated from McNeese State University in my hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana in December 2010. I started teaching fall 2011 and then I moved to Utah in 2012- there’s no snow in Louisiana and I love to snowboard! I had a couple friends move to Utah so I visited more and more and over time I just loved it.

How did you first get involved in tech?

I moved to Utah in 2012 and the first Girl Develop It (GDI) event that I went to was in 2013. I had a friend who was a QA analyst learning to code on the job at Instructure, which hosted the GDI events.

I’ve been doing web development since high school, building websites for my friends on and off for money on the side. It was always just front end stuff. I knew that I liked it and that there was potential for me to have a really great career by going full stack.

What was that first Girl Develop It workshop like?

It was a GDI jQuery hack night hosted at Instructure. One of the senior developers at Instructure did a mini two-hour crash course to jQuery. It was tons of fun and everybody was really helpful. Even afterwards, they followed up the presentation and all the materials from the night, and everyone was great about responding to questions.

At subsequent hacknights, I continued to build on that material until I learned JQuery and then was introduced to PHP and more importantly, actual JavaScript.

Outside of HTML/CSS, the first programming languages I learned were all through GDI hacknights.

Once you decided to start researching coding bootcamps, did you ever look at in-person bootcamps?

I did and honestly, it was not possible. I work 9 to 5 and even part-time classes require you to be there twice a week. I knew there would be times when I missed class because of work meetings.

I wasn’t willing to spend money on tuition for a part-time program when I knew it would either drain me and kill me, or I would miss a large majority of it. Six hours a week learning from my couch is a totally different experience than 6 hours a week driving across town, going to class, and then coming home at 10pm.

I honestly don’t think I would have invested this much time learning Ruby on Rails on my own. Without the structure of the Bloc course and the support from my mentor, there’s just no way I would’ve done it. I probably would’ve stayed stuck in my old job.

Before you moved to Utah, you were reaching middle school- what did you think of the teaching style at Bloc; how did that compare to your experience as a teacher?

When I was teaching in a public school, kids were in a classroom of 30; if they didn’t understand a concept, they weren’t going to put themselves out there to ask questions. They don’t want to look stupid. With Bloc, I think it’s great to have a smaller learning environment with one-on-one attention and an open door policy where you can ask questions. I don’t have to worry about looking dumb. I think anytime you can do that one-on-one approach, that’s awesome.

Tell us a little bit about your mentor at Bloc. How was that experience?

My mentor is Adam Louis. He is always open and available outside of our scheduled meeting times. If I get stuck on something small, I don’t have to be stuck. I can call him about it and he’ll explain it to me really fast, but we do have our longer meetings.

One of the things I really like about him is that he doesn’t just talk about the technical stuff, about coding and Ruby, but he really spends a lot of time on the little philosophical points, like best practices.

When I asked, “I understand what this does but why am I doing it this way instead of one of the other millions of ways I can do it?” He’s really good about pointing out “don’t just do X, this is why you’re doing it.” I have the best mentor!

Right now you’re working as a full-stack web developer?

I sure am. I work at SCHAWEL+COLES, it’s a small agency. We’re working a lot with Magento and converting sites and building sites for people; but mostly, almost exclusively e-commerce.  

On a day-to-day, I’m mostly working in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, PHP.

How did Bloc help prepare you for this role and what skills did Bloc help you get comfortable in a web development role?

In my previous position, I had been doing some front-end development, but I was the only person in the company who knew how to plug in a printer. So I was never able to really work on a development team.

Bloc introduced me to Git, which my current employer uses. The whole office has a repository which is why I am so glad that I had that background experience with the command line and Github at Bloc.

Other than that, talking with my advisor and sharing files with him and joining the Bloc channel and talking to people and sharing information, I think that makes a perfect introduction to actually working with a team of developers for real, on an everyday basis.

When I applied to my job, they loved my resume because I had a lot of front-end experience. One of the things that my boss told me is that they were really excited because they were hoping to hire a full-stack person. Even though I was clearly not a proficient Ruby on Rails developer, they were open to me learning.

What is it like to ramp up to working as a developer after graduating from Bloc?

I’ve been here a month and a half. One of the things I’ve been doing is sitting in on client meetings. Some clients want to change certain aspects of the Magento accounts, so I’ve been sitting in with the back end team while they interface with these clients. They’ve been giving me smaller projects to do within Magento to get my feet wet and ask questions.

I had no experience with Magento beforehand, so it’s really great that they’re being serious about giving me opportunities to learn new things. It’s purely learning right now and I love that.

Do you have advice for other students who are trying to make a career change after Bloc?

Be upfront and honest about that during your application process, whether you’re halfway through the course or just starting it. Just say, “I’m excited about learning, this is what I’m learning, this is what I can offer you now and in the future.” When I was applying to jobs, I showed that I was proficient in front-end on my portfolio site.  But, I also showed that I’m on my way to being a full stack developer, and I even linked to the Bloc course I was taking.

Have you been keeping up with the #Ilooklikeanengineer? Being an African American female and working as a developer, do you have any thoughts on diversity in tech?

It’s kind of weird because Utah is like 98% white, so there are no minorities here, period. Salt Lake City has earned the nickname “the Silicon Slope" because all these tech companies are moving here and bringing the diversity with them. I think that’s actually encouraging a lot more people here to get involved, especially the women who I’ve met through GDI. There’s a huge mix in that group because most of them came here looking for work in tech or they’re from here and have been exposed to the earning and growth opportunities in tech.

I think in Utah in particular, it’s still definitely a field that you don’t see a lot of women or a lot of minorities in; but it’s changing so much because such good companies are coming here. And that’s really encouraging to see.

What advice would you give to other women or minorities who were in your shoes when you started?

It’s just really important to be confident in yourself and your own abilities. Just because you might not fit the demographic, you can still believe that you can do the job and put in the time to do it.

You should not give yourself any excuse to not be your best or to not break into the industry, even if you have to put yourself out there on a limb and go to 10 interviews that are just horrible and scary and daunting and nerve-wracking. I sweated and stuttered through so many interviews until I finally hit my stride, and when I took this position I had three job offers.

I chose this company because it was small and they really seemed appreciative of the fact that I was learning. It was a job where they were going to provide me with the environment to learn that I wanted so that I wouldn’t necessarily have to sink or swim and they wanted to take advantage of that.

Amazing advice. Have you stayed involved in the Girl Develop It community?

I still go to GDI hacknights. While I was taking the Bloc course, when I got stuck and hadn’t yet reached out to my mentor, Hacknights were a great resource because there are people there with experience in all languages. It’s a great place to go and get help.

I encourage everybody to get involved with a group like that, whether it’s GDI or a hack club, because it’s super motivating. It’s one thing to be at my house and not be able to solve a problem and get frustrated and quit.  It was really motivating to go to the GDI hack nights and say, “I’m having trouble with this; someone help me” and five people respond, “I know Ruby; what’s up?”

It sounds like you’re on the path to becoming a mentor to others as well.

That’s one thing I’m excited about. Actually across the street from me there’s an organization called Spyhawk that I’ve gotten involved with. They are all about teaching digital arts. They have a movie-making program, a game designer program and a generic photography/graphic design digital arts program where they have volunteers.

It’s really cool to be able to give back. I think it’s important too, especially with education programs like Bloc. I’m not entirely sure that I would encourage my future kids to go to college outside of them wanting to be a doctor or a lawyer or a chemical engineer. If you want to be a developer, you don’t have to spend 40K on a degree like I did – a degree that I don’t even use.

I think there are a lot of great ways to be motivated and to learn without necessarily spending the time or the money that it takes to get a CS degree.

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